Skip to main content

Evidence and Expectations: Knowing the Limits of Available Data for Book of Mormon Archaeology

One thing I frequently here when talking to people about Book of Mormon evidence is that the lack of archaeological evidence in the New World is totally and completely damning for the Book of Mormon. Scholars should have found Book of Mormon cities, they’ll say. Civilizations just don’t disappear, they’ll insist. Of course, when asked, very few of them can (a) define the epistemological methods by which they have determined the lack of evidence, or (b) tell me much of anything intelligent about Mesoamerica or the state of Mesoamerican archaeology. These are not trivial issues. It should be self-evident that without knowing how to define and evaluate evidence, and knowing nothing about the dataset from which evidence may (or may not) be gleaned, it is impossible to really know whether there is or isn’t any evidence, and just what that evidence may or may not entail.


Mark A. Wright, a fairly new PhD in anthropology (specializing in Mesoamerican archaeology), has written an article that helps address the second of these two issues. It is not on the Book of Mormon at all, but rather provides an overview of Mesoamerica for a lay audience. In it, Wright makes these revealing remarks about the state of Mesoamerican archaeology:
Literally thousands of archaeological sites dot the Mesoamerican landscape, the vast majority of which we know virtually nothing about, other than their locations. In the Maya area alone are approximately six thousand known sites, of which fewer than fifty have undergone systematic archaeological excavation. Classic period sites have traditionally been the focus of excavations, while Preclassic/Formative sites have largely been ignored by archaeologists and looters alike since the artifacts tend to be less valuable or exciting. Likewise, archaeologists have always had a bias toward excavating large capital cities that are known to have large temples, palaces, tombs, and monumental inscriptions while neglecting small or even medium-sized settlements. Archaeologists estimate that less than 1 percent of ancient Mesoamerican ruins have been uncovered and studied, leaving much yet to learn.
In a personal communication to me and a friend of mine, Wright further explained, “of those 6,000 or so known Maya sites, we only know the ancient names of about a dozen of them, which leaves roughly 5,988 sites whose names are simply lost to history. And that’s just from the Maya area, to say nothing of the rest of Mesoamerica.”

Read all of that again and then take a breath as you think through the implications. We know “virtually nothing” of the vast majority of thousands of Mesoamerican sites! Less than 50 of 6,000 Mayan sites have been excavated, and only about 12 of those have a known pre-Columbian name! Less than 1% of ruins have been uncovered! And the focus has been on Classic-era (AD 200–900) sites, which generally post-date Book of Mormon times.


These facts make it absurd to insist that we “should” have found Zarahemla (or any other Book of Mormon city) by now. Based on the numbers given above, any given Book of Mormon city is more likely to be unexcavated than excavated. Given how limited our knowledge is, we are extremely fortunate to have highly plausible candidates for Zarahemla (Santa Rosa) and Nephi (Kaminaljuyu), and a handful of other Book of Mormon cities. And we haven’t even mentioned, here, the various complications (some of which I have discussed elsewhere) that make identifying distinctly Nephite or Lamanite remains difficult, if not impossible. This alone speaks to the authenticity of the Book of Mormon, in my opinion. It seems extremely unlikely that strong candidates for fictional cities would be found among such a small sample size (the less-than-1% of known ruins).

Comments

  1. This is the same conclusion I came away with from reading Charles C. Mann's book 1491. There were so many cultures and peoples and sites throughout Central and South America that we know close to nothing. Thanks for a great post.

    J. Max Wilson
    http://www.sixteensmallstones.org

    ReplyDelete

Post a Comment

Popular posts from this blog

Nephite History in Context 1: Jerusalem Chronicle

Editor’s Note: This is the first contribution to my new series Nephite History in Context: Artifacts, Inscriptions, and Texts Relevant to the Book of Mormon. Check out the really cool (and official, citable) PDF version here. To learn more about this series, read the introduction here. To find other posts in the series, see here
Jerusalem Chronicle (ABC 5/BM 21946)
Background
The so-called “Babylonian Chronicles” are an important collection of brief historical reports from Mesopotamia, found in Iraq in the late-19th century.1 They are written on clay tablets in Akkadian using cuneiform script, and cover much of the first millennium BC, although several tablets are missing or severely damaged, leaving gaps in the record. One tablet, colloquially known as the “Jerusalem Chronicle” (ABC 5/BM 21946),2 provides brief annal-like reports of the early reign of Nebuchadrezzar II (biblical Nebuchadnezzar), including mention of his invasion of Jerusalem.
Biblical sources report that King Jehoiac…

Nephite History in Context 2a: Apocryphon of Jeremiah

Editor’s Note: This is the first part of the second contribution to my new series Nephite History in Context: Artifacts, Inscriptions, and Texts Relevant to the Book of Mormon. Check out the really cool (and official, citable) PDF version here. To learn more about this series, read the introduction here. To find other posts in the series, see here
Apocryphon of Jeremiah (4Q385a)
Background
Between 1947 and 1956, a few well preserved scrolls and tens of thousands of broken fragments were found scattered across eleven different caves along the northwest shores of the Dead Sea near Qumran. Now known as the Dead Sea Scrolls, they are arguably the most significant discovery ever made for the study of the Bible and the origins of Judaism and Christianity. Among the writings found are the earliest copies of nearly every Old Testament book, many of the known apocryphal and pseudepigraphic works, and several other texts discovered for the first time at Qumran. Altogether, more than 900 differe…

The 15 “Best Books” to Read BEFORE Having a Faith Crisis

Elder M. Russell Ballard recently stressed that it is important for Gospel educators to be well-informed on controversial topics, not only by studying the scriptures and Church materials, but also by reading “the best LDS scholarship available.” I personally think it is imperative in today’s world for every Latter-day Saint—not just Gospel educators—to make an effort to be informed on both controversial issues as well as knowing reliable faith-building information as well.
(Given that Elder Ballard’s CES address was published to general Church membership in the Ensign, I think it’s safe to say that Church leadership also feels this way.)
An important step in the process of getting informed is reading the 11 Gospel Topic essays and getting familiar with their contents. But what’s next? How can a person learn more about these and other topics? What are the “best books” (D&C 88:118) or “the best LDS scholarship available”?
Here are 15 suggestions.
1. Michael R. Ash, Shaken Faith S…